|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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At the last meal with his disciples during Jesus’ earthly life, following the departure of Judas, Jesus begins his final, formal farewell statement. And although he tells his disciples that he IS going away, he also tells them that “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
And the always-assertive Peter asks, “Lord, WHERE are you going?” And Jesus answers, “Where I am going, YOU cannot follow me now; but you WILL follow afterward.”
But Peter is INSISTENT, almost pouting, “Lord, why can I NOT follow you now? I will lay down my LIFE for you.” And Jesus answered, “WILL you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
Now, that MUST have been a puzzling and unsettling response for Peter to hear. And Jesus KNOWS that he has not calmed the confusion, but has troubled the disicples even further. And he opens the fourteenth chapter of the gospel according to John by telling his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
But what must it have MEANT to the disciples to be told that after their FOLLOWING Jesus all this way, they could no LONGER follow? Jesus has told them to BELIEVE in him; but THEY, on the other hand, may be harboring doubts: “Doesn’t HE believe in US?”
If HE believed in US, wouldn’t he take us with him? Well, of COURSE he would, IF the journey on which he was going were not such a RADICAL departure from where he and the disciples had been.
Now, I don’t mean to trivialize what is happening in Jesus’ life; but what is happening here is quite similar to what happens in the plots of many books and movies. A character must DO something that CANNOT be done by ANYONE else. And no one else can even be TOLD about it. And even if they ARE told, they probably will NOT understand.
But Jesus wishes to ASSURE the disciples that afterward there WILL be a place for them: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
And he is falling back on what he said in the previous verse: “BELIEVE in me.” But he’s also telling his disciples, you’ve followed me THIS far, trusted in me THIS far, trust me NOW to speak the truth to you!
But what must the disciples be THINKING when they hear Jesus tell them, “I go to prepare a place”? He has spoken of a house with dwelling places, but what have the disciples UNDERSTOOD? What do WE understand this to mean?
Jesus continues, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” And there are those WORDS again: “prepare a place.”
Now, I have some problems with the idea that an ETERNAL place even REMOTELY resembles an EARTHLY place. And in our limited sense of “place,” how can we even BEGIN to understand the eternal?
But we DO know what happened to Jesus in the four days following this speech. And we DO know that Jesus left the disciples. And we DO know that Jesus came BACK.
But if he left to prepare a PLACE, is it not likely, that among all the OTHER images we may have of what Jesus prepared for us, that PLACE is ALSO a new relationship with God; that PLACE opens up for us a new sense of what life and eternity are all about;
that PLACE reveals to us that earthly death is ONLY that: EARTHLY, and that in the ETERNAL sense of God there is much MORE in the promises Christ has brought to us?
But Jesus almost TEASINGLY adds, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” It’s almost like a puzzle, with Jesus telling the disciples that they know all they need to know, that they have all the pieces of the puzzle and all the clues.
And I’m reminded of a sign I’ve seen, on more than one occasion, along the highway or on bumper stickers, that proclaims “Jesus is the answer!” And my slightly irreverent response to that sign is, “So what is the question?” But when Jesus spoke of “the way to the place where I am going,” he was speaking not merely of destination, but also of the process of getting there.
Well, Thomas has trouble with this. “Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
And Thomas seems to think that if he knew WHERE Jesus was going, if he knew the destination, then he could know the WAY to get there, know the journey. And in earthly matters, that makes sense.
If we know that we want to end up in Bolivar or Springfield or Kansas City or wherever, we can plan the trip to get there. But if we do not KNOW the destination, how can we even BEGIN the trip?
But Jesus is not SPEAKING of EARTHLY matters. And Jesus is not speaking of a destination as neatly separated from the the journey. Indeed, in his words the destination and the journey become so intertwined as to become different ways of looking at the same thing.
“Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
And I hear him telling us that he is the MEANS of finding truth as well as the truth itself; but more than that, he is the living EMBODIMENT of the PATH to truth AND the END of truth.
Jesus is not merely a teacher who can tell us ABOUT truth; Jesus is not merely a teacher who can tell us the methods of FINDING truth; Jesus is not merely a good EXAMPLE of the truth--Jesus is ALL of this and more. And when he tells us that “no one comes to the Father except through me” he is telling us that all of this is NECESSARY to FINDING God. God is not merely ritual we go through in worship; and God is not merely the loving, kindly things we do. No, God is far MORE than that.
God in the incarnate Christ is a living, breathing God, embodying humanity and divinity, incorporating all of the above aspects of God in such a way that is indeed much MORE than the sum of the parts.
And Jesus continues in his answer to Thomas, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” But Jesus demonstrates a tremendous leap of faith here. Because he is assuming that NOW the disciples DO know him. And for Thomas that may be a questionable assumption.
Those words are troubling: “If you know me.” Because, how often do WE confront OURSELVES with the question of how WELL we know Christ? And DO we believe that God was FULLY revealed, as some believe, in Jesus? Which, for me, raises the question of whether an INFINITE God CAN be fully revealed in a FINITE human.
Philip is as baffled by all this as Thomas. “Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” But WHAT is he asking for? WHAT does he expect the response to be? WHAT does he expect to be SHOWN? What would it take to SATISFY him?
I imagine that in some respects, we may not be much different that Philip, looking for God in our lives, wanting more, but not necessarily PREPARED for God when we FIND God. If we were “shown” God, would we be satisfied? Or would we be UNSURE of what we had been shown? I’ve heard fellow pastors speak of parishioners who live in a perpetual state of vocal dissatisfaction with their church. No matter WHAT or HOW MUCH is done to respond to them, there is no satisfaction.
If THEY were to be “shown” God, would they be satisfied?
Well, Jesus has just about reached the limits of his patience. “Jesus said to Philip, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father?”
And anyone who has ever been a parent or a teacher knows this frustration. I can hear my parents saying to me, and to all my siblings, “How many times do I have to tell you...?” But why is it that we ignore what others tell us? Why is it that Philip cannot SEE the divinity in Christ? Maybe we should ask, “Could WE see it?” Or was there something in Jesus’ presence that made it IMPOSSIBLE for Philip to really BELIEVE that he was also seeing God?
Indeed, maybe the disciples knew the HUMAN side of Jesus TOO well. SO well, that they could not make that leap of faith that would allow them to believe that this HUMAN PERSON was also DIVINE.
And Jesus continues, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”
And this raises the question of motivation. WHY is Jesus doing what he does? Now, the notion of “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” may lose Philip; but when Jesus speaks of his MOTIVATION, he gives Philip something to grab hold of. And what he seems to be telling Philip is that his MESSAGE is not his OWN. It is all GOD’S idea. It is inspiration from beyond.
Now, in contemporary language I think we could objectively say that Jesus was “possessed.” Unfortunately, we usually think of possession as demonic rather than as divine. But if Jesus were with us in human form today, he would have a more than adequate response for our possible doubt.
“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”
And Jesus is telling Philip and Thomas and the rest of the disciples and all of us, even if you cannot believe who I am, even if you cannot believe what I say to you, even if you are having a really hard time making sense of my relationship with God, then at least believe me because of the works themselves. LOOK at what I have done. Let my ACTS speak for themselves. And THIS is ultimate WITNESS.
It is like the politician who, rather than promise everything to everybody, honestly says, “Look at my record.” And even after two thousand years of re-wording, and revising, and re-translating scripture, the message of Christ’s acts in the world still rings clear.
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” And there are two promises here.
We are told that if we BELIEVE in Christ, we will do the works that Christ does. Our belief empowers us. But there is a second promise, a promise of greater works, and they will result because Jesus goes to God. And a superficial reading of this would lead us to ask, how is it that there can be even greater empowerment in the absence of Jesus than in the presence?
But the question is not one of presence or absence, but of how and why Jesus goes to God. The empowerment of our belief comes through the sacrificial death of Jesus in the crucifixion, and through the resurrection of Jesus on the third day.
We cannot be fully empowered ONLY by the living example of Jesus Christ. FULL empowerment comes only when we confront the questions of the how and why of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And I wonder what the disciples thought when they heard those words. Of course, they had seen miracles done; but they still were not grasping what lay in store for Jesus.
This was BEFORE the crucifixion, BEFORE the resurrection. We, on the other hand, have the benefit of hindsight. But even with that benefit, do WE know the way of Christ any better than the disciples did?
Do WE fully understand how he CAN be and IS the way, the truth, and the life for us?
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